Nearly seven years ago, Colleen Richards prepared herself to bury her daughter.

Nearly seven years ago, Colleen Richards prepared herself to bury her daughter.

Richards remembers tossing and turning as the snow fell one winter night back then. Her 20-year-old daughter, Mykel Hunter, addicted to painkillers and weighing next to nothing, was as close to death as she'd ever been.

In the morning, Richards knew she would do one of two things: either track down her daughter and turn her in to her parole officer, sending her back to prison for the second time, or drive to Cedar Hill Cemetery, buy a plot and start to plan for the funeral she feared would be inevitable if things didn't change.

"I knew I was going to get the phone call where they'd found her dead," Richards said.

Richards recalled the story on a recent December day from the cozy living room of her Newark home, filled with decorations and white twinkle lights for Christmas. Her daughter sat next to her -- alive, out of prison and nearly five months clean at age 27. It's a feat they attribute in large part to a developing Newark police program designed to steer addicts into treatment and get them help.

Hunter's struggle with addiction has been ongoing for 16 years. She began dealing with a kidney condition when she was 10, and she was prescribed painkillers. By 11 or 12, she was addicted.

Her mother couldn't bring herself to go to the cemetery that day seven years ago, but she did turn Hunter in for violating her parole. As an adult, Hunter wound up in prison three times, committing nonviolent crimes -- mostly theft -- to feed her addiction. She told herself many times that she would stop the cycle, but knew deep down she wouldn't.

Six months ago, though, Hunter, a mother of three, hit a turning point. She was ready to make a change. That's when she entered the Newark Addiction Recovery Initiative program.

The program, announced in June by police Chief Barry Connell, was based on the Angel Program started by police in Gloucester, Massachusetts, last year.

Under the initiative, addicts are invited to come to the Newark police station to seek help and treatment.

Officers will connect them to the appropriate community resources and act as a liaison in the process.

Though Ohio has received national attention for its drug epidemic, Connell didn't know what to expect when he created NARI. A handful of police departments around the state had similar programs, but he wasn't sure whether people would come in droves or not at all, he said.

But they did come. As the NARI program approaches its six-month mark, it's welcomed more than 45 addicts seeking help.

With those people came a steep learning curve, Connell said.

"Obviously, police officers are well-trained and educated in the trafficking things: how to find traffickers and how to detect drugs and things like that, but until this point, we've really never been involved in ... the 'fixing it' side of it," he said.

Connell has praised local addiction programs and health care providers that have worked with the police department to get addicts help. His team has had their eyes opened to the ins and outs of addiction and treatment: the insurance process, the role of mental health in the addiction puzzle and the number of drug treatment organizations that exist, but are often overwhelmed.

"This has kind of been a whirlwind," Connell said.

With the help of the NARI program, Hunter received a scholarship through a nonprofit group to go to a drug-treatment and recovery center in Florida for two months. She came back Aug. 30.

"I felt whole again," she said. "I felt like I deserved to belong again, because I didn't feel like that for many years."

Once the NARI program was announced, many came in seeking help for methamphetamine addiction, said Sgt. Brian Webster, who has help lead the initiative.

Officers learned quickly that many treatment centers typically don't offer detox programs for meth, so those patients were often referred to other programs and resources rather than inpatient treatment. Later, it seemed more people were seeking help for opiate addictions, Webster said.

Connell has kept the program staffing small as it gets off the ground, with a handful of officers handling the intake process for program participants. Aside from those man-hours, NARI doesn't cost the police department anything, Webster said.

Colleen Richards is one of two community volunteers, offering support to addicts, whether it's sitting with them during the initial assessment process or taking their phone calls at all hours when they need someone to talk to.

"What if they don't have anybody?" she said. "What if they need a coat? What if they just want somebody to talk to? I am always there for them."

Connell has made clear that the NARI program does not detract from law-enforcement efforts to stop drug dealers and traffickers -- those who "are profiting from the misery of human beings."

Part of the NARI promise, however, is the opportunity for addicts to turn in their drugs or paraphernalia to police when they're ready to seek help, without the fear of prosecution. But few people have actually turned anything in since the program started, Connell said.

Hunter said she hopes more addicts take advantage of the help that Newark police are trying to offer.

"You could have never convinced me a couple years ago to go to a police department," she said. "(But) the police officers are wonderful, and to show the community that they're not against them, that they want to help them, is a big thing to addicts, because you think everybody's out to get you, especially the police."

"We're just a gateway," Webster said. "If we can get somebody battling addiction from the lobby of the police station to the lobby at Shepherd Hill (treatment center) or (Licking Memorial Hospital), that's huge."